Sunday Sermon for October 16, 2011, the Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Readings: Is 45:1, 4-6; 1Th 1:1-5b; Mt 22:15-21

In the Gospel reading today our Lord tells the Pharisees who had plotted against Him that they were to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. This sounds pretty obvious, but we have to consider the statement in its original context and in its application for today.

The Pharisees were the ones who fancied themselves the true believers and the holy ones. However, many times in the Gospels our Lord chides them for fulfilling the small things in the Law, even following the letter of the Law in some instances, while ignoring the weightier things of the Law, such as love of God and love of neighbor. The arrogance of the Pharisees had blinded them to the fact that they were not really serving God as much as they were serving themselves. When one is self -serving, it is always easy to condemn others because you have considered yourself to be righteous.

I find it very interesting that Jesus was so compassionate to those who were not living their faith, to those who had fallen into very grievous sin, and to those who were not even Jewish. However, He had little tolerance for those who gave God lip service and went through the motions of living the faith while their hearts were far from Him.

It is with this in mind that we have to apply this statement to our own times and situations. We need to ask if we are truly serving the Lord. Like the Pharisees, we may like to think ourselves to be righteous and doing what is required, but are we really serving God? It is easy to do the right thing just because we do not want our conscience to bother us. Another way to say this is that we can appease our consciences and feel good about ourselves as long as we are doing what is right, but if that is the case, our actions are merely external and, beyond that, they are selfish. If we are giving to God what belongs to God, that not only implies taking time for prayer, striving to live a virtuous life, frequenting the Sacraments and doing good to others, but it also requires that we consider the motive for which these things are done. If we do not want to fall into the trap mentioned in the preceding paragraph, then we need to have our focus on God.

Look at what St. Paul does in the second reading. He does not give credit to the Thessalonians for their work of faith, labor of love and endurance in hope, but He thanks God for these gifts and points out that they are done in the Lord Jesus. How often do we give God credit for our gifts and talents and for the things that happen in our lives? How often do we invoke the Lord and perform our actions with and for Jesus?

Sometimes we do good things for others, but for a selfish reason, whether that be to appease our conscience, to impress someone, to get something in return or to be noticed by the other. This is not a true love for neighbor, even though others are being helped and served. So, whether we are serving the Lord directly or serving Him by serving our neighbor, we need to get the focus off of ourselves and on to God.

All too often we fall into the problem mentioned in the first reading where the Lord is speaking to Cyrus, the pagan king who ordered the Jews to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple. The Lord spoke of all the things He had done for Cyrus, even though Cyrus did not know the Lord and did not know that it was the Lord Who had done these things.

It is excusable that a pagan did not know the Lord and, therefore, did not give Him due thanks and praise. We, however, are without excuse because we know the Lord and we know that He should be given credit for everything. In anything good, the most we can say is that we cooperated with God’s grace, but we cannot take the credit for ourselves.

This is an area in which most Catholics lack. We will turn to the Lord only when our backs are against the wall. We are quick to use His Holy Name, but rarely in an effort to recognize Him and give Him His due. It is funny, perhaps tragic, that we see it as a matter of justice to praise others and we expect others to praise us, but we fail miserably to give thanks and praise to God. Give to others what is due, but give to God what is due to Him.

Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit